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Jeremy's journal

He'd had the sense, moments earlier, that Caroline was on the verge of accusing him of being "depressed," and he was afraid that if the idea that he was depressed gained currency, he would forfeit his right to his opinions. He would forfeit his moral certainties; every word he spoke would become a symptom of disease; he would never win an argument.

Jonathan Franzen

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Thursday, February 26th, 2009

In which I take issue with Borges

Borges starts out by talking about how one reads detective stories.

To think is to generalize; we need the useful archetypes of Plato to be able to make any claim. So: why shouldn't we affirm that there are literary genres? I will add a personal observation: literary genres depend, perhaps, less on the texts themselves than on the manner in which they are read. The æsthetic fact requires a conjunction of reader and text; only then does it exist. It is absurd to suppose that a volume is anything more than a volume. It starts to exist when the reader opens the volume. Then the æsthetic phenomenon comes into existence, which could be imagined from the moment when the book was engendered.

And there is an actual type of reader, the reader of detective fiction. This reader -- this reader whom we encounter in every country of the world and who numbers in the millions -- was brought into being by Edgar Allen Poe. Let us suppose that this reader did not exist -- or let's suppose something perhaps more interesting, that we are dealing with a person far removed from ourselves. He could be a Persian, a Malay, a hayseed, a kid -- some person whom we tell that the Quixote is a detective novel; let us suppose that this hypothetical person has read detective novels, and he begins reading the Quixote. So how is he going to read it?

Somewhere in la Mancha, in a place whose name I do not care to remember, not long ago there lived a gentleman... and already this reader is filled with suspicions, for the reader of detective novels is a skeptical reader, suspicious, particularly suspicious.

For example, when he reads: Somewhere in la Mancha..., of course he supposes that this did not take place in la Mancha. Then: ...whose name I do not care to remember..., -- why does Cervantes not care to remember? Without a doubt because Cervantes is the murder[er], is at fault. Then, ...not long ago...; it may be that what has already happened is not as terrifying as the future.

The first two paragraphs of this passage seem just fantastic to me (given that I didn't think there was any real need in the first place, to defend the legitimacy of talking about genre) -- the idea that literary genre is determined by an interaction between the reader and the text has a whole lot of room for interesting stuff to com out of it. The idea that Edgar Allen Poe created the reader of detective stories is a nice little nugget of thought. And the thought experiment of reading Don Quixote as a detective story is a great idea, of course bringing to mind Borges' story about Pierre Menard. But when he embarks on the experiment, he goes off on the wrong track.

The suspicions that Borges attributes to the reader of detective fiction are suspicions about the intent of the narrator, of the author of the Quixote. But the unreliable narrator does not belong to the detective story, and suspicion of him does not belong to the detective story reader; Laurence Sterne predates Poe by a hundred years, and he did not invent the unreliable narrator. (If memory serves, for that matter, the narrator of the actual Quixote is himself not particularly reliable.*) It's been a while since I read any genre detective stories, but the way I recall reading them is being suspicious of the characters and the ways they presented themselves; the narrator (speaking here of stories in the third person or narrated by the detective, and not considering the Raymond Chandler branch of the genre) did not lie, though he might fail to disclose valuable information or might himself be deceived.

So, there's my quibble with this lecture -- which I have not read in full yet. This reading a language I do not understand seems to really point me in the direction of reading closely, at least...

...Looking ahead, some really great stuff in the body of this lecture. Stay tuned, I'll try and write more this evening. Borges thinks the two authors "without whom literature would not be what it is today" are Poe and Whitman.

* I mean to say, it seems completely natural to wonder why Cervantes does not care to remember the place where his novel begins -- but it's not because I suspect Cervantes of being the guilty party, and I don't believe it's because I have read detective stories. I wonder if a 17th-Century reader would have this reaction -- it's hard for me to imagine any other way of reacting to that sentence.

posted evening of February 26th, 2009: 11 responses
➳ More posts about Borges oral

Wednesday, May 6th, 2009


I was looking at the beginning of "Pierre Menard, Author of Don Quixote" (in Anthony Bonner's translation) this evening and was a bit surprised to find two statments that both appeal to me strongly, and neither of which I have noticed in previous readings. Borges attributes to Menard the opinion that "censuring and praising were sentimental operations which had nothing to do with criticism." (Menard ­recuerdo­ declaraba que censurar y alabar son operaciones sentimentales que nada tienen que ver con la crítica.) This is a fairly commonplace idea and a useful one; I like the way it is stated here a lot (the adjective "sentimental" is just right), and it seems like there is a mnemonic quality to this formulation. And the narrator says that part of what inspired Menard's project was "that philological fragment of Novalis... which outlines the theme of total identification with a specific author." According to Daniel Balderston (in Out of Context: historical reference and the representation of reality in Borges), the fragment referred to is:

I only show that I have understood an author when I can act in his spirit; when, without diminishing his individuality, I can translate him and transform him in many ways.*
Well this is lovely. Something to chew on and over for a while.

*Efraín Kristal also quotes this line in his Invisible Work: Borges and Translation.

posted evening of May 6th, 2009: Respond
➳ More posts about Jorge Luis Borges

Saturday, May 9th, 2009

Identifying with poetry

I'm very taken with this idea from "Pierre Menard" about total identification with the author. I've written before about striving for that reading fiction and essays, but haven't really thought about it in connection with poetry. But just now I had the thought (while experimenting with FB statusses), Why not try the final bit of Bolaño's "Resurección" in the first person -- substituting myself for "poetry"?

I slip into the dream
like a dead diver
into the eye of God
(Thanks to Jorge for the structuring of the translation.)

posted evening of May 9th, 2009: Respond
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Monday, May 25th, 2009

Subjunctive Attributions

I did not quite catch this last night; but it is hilarious: Almeida's article is titled "Jorge Luis Borges, author of the poem 'Moments'"; and it is prefaced with a highly relevant quotation from "Pierre Menard".

posted morning of May 25th, 2009: Respond

Sunday, July 18th, 2010


...truth, whose mother is history, rival of time, depository of deeds, witness of the past, exemplar and adviser to the present, and the future's counselor.
This catalog of attributes, written in the seventeenth century, and written by the "ingenious layman" Miguel de Cervantes, is mere rhetorical praise of history.
-- "Pierre Menard, author of the Quixote" (Hurley's translation)
It was not until I was reading the Quixote this evening and happened on the quoted line (near the end of the ninth chapter) that I realized it is not a mere rhetorical flourish, that Borges is calling attention to the line for his own reasons. (Still not exactly sure what those reasons are...; but the line comes at the end of bit of meta-storytelling that sounds to my ear very Borgesian, about the discovery and translation of Benengeli's history. When I'm reading it now it sounds like Cervantes is being ironic about the truth-value of his story.)

posted evening of July 18th, 2010: 4 responses
➳ More posts about Ficciones

Tuesday, January 10th, 2012

Menardesque dream blogging

I was translating (just starting to translate, I was on the first page) into English a translation into Croatian of Stephen Crane's Red Badge of Courage. It seemed like it was going to be a magnum opus...

posted morning of January 10th, 2012: Respond
➳ More posts about Dreams

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